Railroad and union officials are currently meeting with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at the Labor Department in Washington, according to the White House, as the Biden administration tries to help avoid a freight rail strike that could cause massive supply chain disruptions and have significant repercussions on the economy.
The two main unions that have disputes with the railroads – the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and SMART Transportation Division – were expected to send their union chiefs to the meeting with Walsh.
The meeting comes with just days remaining until a federally mandated cooling off period expires and the strike could begin. It serves as a major test for President Joe Biden and his White House, which has positioned itself as one of the most pro-labor administrations in decades but also wants to avoid any potential shocks to the economy with the midterm elections just months away.
Members of the Machinists union on Friday voted to reject a tentative labor deal reached with the nation’s freight railroads. There are about 5,000 members of the union at the railroads working as locomotive machinists, track equipment mechanics and facility maintenance personnel. They make up less than 5% of the more than 100,000 union members at the railroads.
The rejection is not an immediate setback in efforts to avoid the potentially devastating rail strike. The union said it will give an extension until the end of the month to try to reach a change in the tentative agreement that could make it acceptable to its membership. But it is a sign of the difficulty that the railroads will have reaching deals with a dozen different unions that will also be acceptable to their rank-and-file membership.
A Labor Department spokesperson said Wednesday that the unions and railroad officials are “negotiating in good faith” and “committed to staying at the table” as the discussions remained ongoing.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Wednesday morning aboard Air Force One: “All parties need to stay at the table, bargain in good faith to resolve outstanding issues and come to an agreement. A shutdown of our freight rail system is unacceptable outcome for our economy and the American people and all parties must work to avoid just that.”
About 60,000 union members working for railroads are set to go on strike after midnight on Friday. These members include the engineers and conductors who make up the two-person crews on each train. Forty-five thousand other workers belong to unions that have reached tentative deals with the railroads, but a strike by engineers and conductors would bring the freight rail system to a grinding halt.
Such a shutdown could have massive effects across the supply chain and also for the nation’s passenger rail system. About 30% of the nation’s freight moves by rail, and gas, food, consumer goods and cars and trucks could all increase in price or become more scarce if freight trains are shutdown. Amtrak is also warning of huge effects to its service as it runs on tracks that are owned by freight rail companies. Service has already been canceled along key long-haul routes across the country in anticipation of a possible strike.
Officials have grown increasingly concerned about a shutdown, and the White House has been discussing contingency plans as labor talks remain at an impasse and agencies across the federal government are working through options available to keep critical supply chains operational.
Biden personally called rail unions and companies earlier this week when he visited Boston in an attempt to avoid a strike, according to Jean-Pierre. Biden continues to receive regular updates on the high-stakes negotiations.
A White House official previously told CNN the Biden administration is working with shippers, truckers and air freight to see how these other modes of transportation could keep goods moving if there is a rail shutdown. One area of key concern is how to transport hazardous materials.
One official said interagency meetings with the departments of Transportation, Defense, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Energy and the Federal Emergency Management Agency were happening daily.
Disputes on Capitol Hill
Congress has the authority to impose a settlement between the railroads and unions, but Democrats have been wary of undercutting the unions amid the ongoing negotiations.
Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Richard Burr of North Carolina asked for unanimous consent in the Senate to impose a slate of non-binding emergency board recommendations, which would forestall a strike. The Presidential Emergency Board was established by the Biden administration in July and issued the recommendations last month.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, objected to the Republicans’ effort.
And while nine of the 12 unions involved in the ongoing labor negotiations have reached tentative agreements with carriers based on the emergency board’s recommendations, the two largest unions have rejected the proposals.
This story has been updated with additional details on Wednesday.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly, Betsy Klein, Vanessa Yurkevich and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.